John Lanchester Explores Money, Character and Destiny in ‘Capital’

Lee Polevoi



John Lanchester

WW Norton

527 pages


British author John Lanchester displays an impressive range of skills in his books—from a gourmand/serial killer’s disturbing confessions in his first novel, The Debt to Pleasure, to a beguiling memoir Family Romance and an incisive examination of the global economic crisis in IOU: Why Everyone Owes Everyone and No One can Pay! Lanchester’s interest in the global economy bears full fruit in Capital, the finest novel yet from this hugely talented writer.


In late 2007, a series of baffling and vaguely sinister postcards arrive at the homes of residents of Pepys Road in South London. Each card carries a single message: WE WANT WHAT YOU HAVE. The various residents—at least eight of whom feature prominently in the story—react differently to the anonymous mailings, busy as they are with their hectic, pre-great-recession lives. We learn more about the perpetrators behind the mysterious (and increasingly violent) campaign, but the true focus of Capital stays squarely on these characters as they rush to hurt or help each other.


Roger Yount of 51 Pepys Road works for the investment bank Pinker Lloyd in the City. He’s feverishly estimating what a hoped-for company bonus will secure him by way of ongoing financial comfort, including the family’s yearly trips overseas (“Any flights would be taken business class, since Roger thought the whole point of having money, if it had to be summed up in a single point, which it couldn’t, but if you had to, the whole point of having a bit of money was not to have to fly scum class”). Roger’s wife Arabella is addicted to an upper-middle-class lifestyle, which permeates her way of interacting with others (“Arabella had a habit of overstating things, one that she had so much internalized that it was not always easy to tell when she was mildly pleased about something and when she was genuinely delighted. Gresham’s Law was at work: the cheap money of overstatement was gradually driving out the good money of true feeling.”).                


A host of other Pepys Road residents populate this long novel that never feels long. Among them, Petunia Howe, an aging widow who can’t make sense of the neighborhood’s spiraling house prices; the Kamals, a prickly but cohesive family of Pakistani immigrants who operate the corner newsstand; and Freddy Kamos, a teenage soccer prodigy from Senegal who signs with an English pro football team and, with his father Patrick, is housed for a time on Pepys Road.


Still more characters cross paths as the multilayered story plays out, but there’s rarely any confusion or sense of “overpopulation.” This is a story about London before, during and immediately after the global meltdown. The plethora of individuals portrayed, with all their quirks and obsessions, perfectly fits the scope and vision of this ambitious work.


For Capital to work, Lanchester must be proficient in a wide range of subjects, such as Islamic law, exchange-traded derivatives, arcane football strategies and the frightening methods of adapting to life inside an immigrant detention center. He is a master of tone, crafting the voice of a sardonic, yet genuinely curious narrator standing just off-screen while these Londoners (and others) fall prey to their social and self-induced disasters.


At the same time, there’s a great compassion and understanding at work. Take, for example, a moment in Petunia’s rapidly dwindling life when she returns home after an afternoon excursion:


“She must have taken his trip ten thousand ties in her life. She had done it in a thousand different moods; in fact one of the happiest days of her life had been when she made this very same walk, back from the doctors’, on the day she found out she was pregnant. She had gone in the door sad, she had gone in exhausted, she had gone in feeling flat, fat, sexy, giggly, furious, absent-minded, tipsy from holiday sherry, in a flat rush to get to the loo, in every physical or mental state possible. She had gone through a phase of being frightened that robbers would rush up behind her as her attention was on opening the door, and grab her bag or force their way into he house; but that fear, and others like it, had long passed. It was still the same house and still the same door and still the same her walking through it … We want what you have. Petunia thought about that strange card for a moment. She still found it hard to imagine anyone saying those words to her face.”


Occasionally, Capital feels a little overdetermined. A subplot involving Roger’s calculating executive assistant too closely mirrors the dynamics between Smitty, a performance artist best known for being anonymous and his own resentful and self-deluded assistance. Such issues pale beside the author’s superb command of his material and his ability, through more than 100 short chapters, to induce in the reader that compulsion to read “just one more page.”


At one point, Arabella Yount “abandons” 51 Pepys Road for a getaway weekend, both to indulge herself and to make her husband more fully understand the travails involved in child-rearing (though she herself leaves that chore to a live-in nanny). Roger returns from a hellish day at the office and, trying to compel his infant son John to go potty, quickly finds himself head-butted by the child and out of control over the situation:


“The little boy fell forward off the loo seat, seeming to be in tears before he landed on the floor. At that point, with no warning, he began to s**t. A spray of excrement, not entirely liquid in texture but not solid either, came out of Joshua’s bum and as if it were a form of propellant he began crawling at amazing speed out of the loo, heading for the landing. Roger, head ringing, one hand on his mouth and jaw, lunged after him but he was too slow and Joshua made it onto the cream carpet before his father could catch him. Excrement was still coming out of Josh’s bottom and he was still crying … Roger, wrestling with his son, noticed something that it was not helpful to notice: that the color of the fresh shit-swirls on the carpet was exactly the shade of a perfect made cappuccino. Then Joshua shat again, this time down the arm of Roger’s dressing gown. The shit was liquid and hot. It smelt very bad. Then the front door rang.”


Funny, wise, shrewd, suspenseful – Capital by John Lanchester is one of the best novels of 2012.


Author bio:

A Q&A with Lee Polevoi, Highbrow Magazine’s chief book critic, can be found here.


Photo credit: Amrei-Marie (, Creative Commons)


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